Deliver the Deliverer
Over the past few months I have been immensely enjoying the musical stylings of The Last Bison. (formerly known just as Bison) I discovered them on NoiseTrade and was hooked immediately on their tantalizing blend of mountain-top chamber music.
One song in particular found its place on repeat for about two hours: Iscariot. It starts off with a haunting mix of guitar and mandolin that is complemented by cello and fiddle. This captivating movement evokes a sense of mystery and beauty, itself a somewhat deceptive yet altogether appropriate introduction to the darker moods created by the lyrics and melody. The lyrics are as follows:
Woe unto you
Double crossing the Son of Man
For in the dish you have dipped your hand
Lo you come here
To deliver the deliverer
From simple kiss into tainted hands
The devil has you now
You’re set up for betrayal
The devil has you now
Your kiss tastes like a crown of thorns
I have used, I have used
Your unbelief, to set them free
So die now, die now my Judas
Every time I listen to this song I am fascinated by the lyrics (and the music), especially the chorus. There is an interesting double-meaning going on here: Judas is the one who is going to be betraying Jesus, (delivering the deliverer- great line) but by doing so he is the one who is getting set up for betrayal. One is reminded of the proverb about falling into the pit one has dug, or the stone rolled comes back upon the roller. (The Sisyphean task has another possible outcome, it would seem.)
The whole act of treachery is painted as tainting everything, and the darkness within spreads to envelop every action. A kiss of friendship signals trust and familiarity, but the sinful inclination and intent of the heart turns a simple and innocent action into something more sinister. An important theological understanding is indicated here: at the Last Supper Jesus warns that the who who dips his hand is the betrayer, and Judas supposedly had this chance to pull back from his sin. But this dipping of his hand into the bowl and this sharing of bread becomes the means by which his hands become tainted and stained with blood. Here sin shows itself as privation, since the same act which ushers one into communion with the Master can also be the way into condemnation if done with a polluted will.
In this moment of darkness, as the Gospels say, Satan entered into Judas- the devil has you now, as this song says. The one who comes near to deliver the deliverer is the now betrayer who is set up for his own betrayal, as we come to the bridge:
I have used, I have used
Your unbelief, to set them free
So die now, die now my Judas
This is meant to be an echo of Jesus’ words:
The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born. (Mark 14:21 NIV)
The phrase in this song can be a little jarring; after all, it seems out of character for such a sentiment to be on the lips of Jesus. The lyrics of this song are certainly not a quote, but even as we consider them they must be judged to be- as strange as it seems- toned down from Jesus’ actual words. The song has Judas sent off to an ignominious death, but Jesus’ words go further: it would be better if he hadn’t been born. Not ever existing would be preferable to the fate he must face.
One of the curious things about Judas is that he has in some ways received a sort of rehabilitation. Instead of the arch-sinner locked in the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno for his conscious and wicked betrayal, in many ways he is recast as the zealous if foolish disciple who wants Jesus to hurry up and do his kingdom building, getting the Romans the hell out of Judea. There are usually two main threads this tends to follow:
Judas the Zealot
Judas was presumably a member of the Zealots, since his other name (Iscariot) is sometimes believed (perhaps erroneously) to be a variation of another term that essentially denotes an assassination squad which, among other things, wanted to reestablish Israel’s sovereignty. Within this scenario Judas very plausibly believes Jesus is the Messiah and, like many others, has his messianic hopes wrapped up in a Messiah who sends the Romans and other Gentiles packing. However, Jesus sort of dragged his feet, putting too much emphasis on a spiritual kingdom. Yes, spiritual kingdoms are great- let’s have more of that, certainly. But there’s not reason that couldn’t encompass an earthly one as well, right?
Within this scenario Judas is impatient with the way Jesus’ messiahship is going and wants to move it along. A crisis of some kind- like Jesus being arrested- might just be the ticket. And since Judas really believes Jesus to be who he says he is, those legions of angels he ends up ultimately refusing to call are what Judas is counting on. The resulting conflict between Jesus, the ruling elites and the Romans will rally the Jewish people to rise up against their oppressors and bring the kingdom to fruition.
It is only after Jesus refuses to free himself from his captors and is condemned to death that Judas realizes his horrible mistake, and in his regret takes his own life, having betrayed innocent blood.
Judas the Disillusioned Disciple
This one often follows the general outlines of the Zealot thesis, but adds a bit of a dramatic twist in that at some point there is a change in Judas’ perception of Jesus. The one who used to fill him with Messianic hopes has lost his sparkle. All the talk about suffering and death shows Jesus to be just another dime-a-dozen teacher, not someone who can bring about Messianic hopes. This disappointment is so devastating that, when Judas realizes Jesus is a fraud, in his spite Judas conspires to get rid of him.
He may have expected Jesus to recant- after all, he’s a fake, and surely he wouldn’t carry this charade all the way to death. When Jesus maintains who he is and is sentenced to death Judas realizes he has given an innocent albeit delusional man over to a death he didn’t deserve
To be sure, these theses have a compellingly dramatic character to it. Judas is cast as a tragic figure who slogs through the mire of conflicting emotions, motives and political intrigue. In some way this are reminiscent of Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost, in which he is eminently interesting, outshining God spectacularly in the depth of his character’s presentation.
But it is not without its problems. The conflation of Iscariot with the assassination squad of a somewhat similar etymology is difficult to establish with certainty, since there is no corroborating example in ancient literature. (at least of which I am aware) Additionally, the group to which this is meant to refer was not in existence until the middle of the first century. True, the name could be an anachronism. But it could also (and more likely) simply be the name of his father’s family, some inherited title, the name of his hometown, etc. Since the gospels give us no real indication of Judas’ political leanings, it is mere speculation to associate his name in that way, especially if the only reason to do so is to buttress an evidence-less theory.
On the same note, if his name actually did have this association, there is a surprising lack of silence regarding it in the ancient Christian literature. If Judas really were part of a nationalistic assassination squad, one might wonder why no one really bothered to mention this. After all, if someone betrays the one whom you believe to be the Messiah, those sorts of details are simply begging to be flung back in his face. To be sure, arguments from silence do not prove anything, but that surely goes both ways.
The disillusioned disciple scenario has more plausibility to it, but a lot seems to hinge on assuming that Judas has an overwhelmingly compelling prior commitment to the Zealots. We get very little evidence from the accounts that Judas actually had this sort of disillusionment.
Deadly Sins and All That
So where does that leave us? Why did Judas deliver the deliverer to death? We have no access to his thoughts or motives, and only God can truly know what compels anyone to any act. We are not really given a full account of exactly why Judas did what he did.
For much of Christian history the general notion was pretty simple: Judas loved money and in his lust for mammon allowed Satan to control him. Many modern commentators find this sort of motive too simplistic:
Overall, though, none of the four Gospels provides a clear or convincing reason for why one of the inner circle of disciples would betray the teacher he esteemed so highly. Greed, for example, fails miserably as an explanation. After all, why would someone who had travelled with the penniless rabbi for three years suddenly be consumed with greed? (Rev. James Martin, S.J.)
Does it actually fail miserably though? After all, even though St. Paul doesn’t ever mention Judas specifically, he does give us this tantalizing nugget:
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10 NIV)
And if we compare this with Peter’s words in Acts, we have an extremely interesting perspective that might otherwise be missed:
With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. (Acts 1:18 NIV)
While the compressed narrative of the Gospels can give the impression that this grip of greed happened suddenly, the truth may be far more spread out. We find hints scattered throughout John’s gospel. In one place Jesus says to the disciples:
Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.) (John 6:70 NIV)
On another occasion Jesus is being anointed with costly perfume and Judas feigns concern about selling it to give to the poor. John gives us his opinion of this scene:
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages. ” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:4-6)
Jesus’ response is interesting:
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “[It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7)
The connection isn’t terribly hard to see. Judas had been helping himself to the purse, and here he sees very expensive perfume being, in his mind, wasted. He could have sold that for quite a hefty fee and “helped the poor.” Jesus all of sudden becomes a serious threat to his financial plans, and such a slap in the face like this scene adds insult to injury. Interestingly, in Mark’s gospel it is right after the anointing that Judas goes to get his silver. Perhaps he originally saw in Jesus a way to gain some wealth- there seem to have been some well-to-do women who financed Jesus’ ministry. And Messiahs have a way of getting money, no doubt. But then something else happens:
Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. (John 12:9-11)
Jesus has already been a marked man for quite some time, and all those cryptic sayings about suffering and dying culminate in him using this financial windfall to prepare his body for burial. Now even those closest to Jesus are being targeted for elimination. Seeing as all the disciples fled from Jesus’ arrest for fear of his life, it seems plausible that Judas may have begun to wonder where that might leave him. Could it be that he already saw the writing on the wall and wanted to squeeze as much out of it as possible? Thirty pieces of silver might not be that much, (around 4 months wages) but if the act also gets you out of the line of fire it might be worth it.
Thus, when it comes down to it and when Jesus starts talking about people betraying him, Judas might have felt exposed. Going off of the gospel accounts, the other disciples seem to have been oblivious at this point to Judas’ thievery. As Judas rises to leave to enact the betrayal, we are told this:
As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. “What you are about to do, do quickly,” Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. (John 13:27-29 NIV)
He apparently has done such a good job covering up his stealing that the other disciples actually entrusted him with the purse and thought he might be going to buy something or give something to the poor. From this greed as one of the primary motives for Judas seems to be what John has in mind, since it is reasonable that his statement about Judas being a thief is in retrospect from this event and that to come. Since John seems to have a been in a better position to realize this, it seems fairly reasonable to take it at face-value.
This would also seem to explain the comment about Satan entering into him. By this point Judas has already taken the money, but he hasn’t gone through with the betrayal. Jesus, who knows exactly what is going on, seems to be giving him a way out, and even helpfully exposes Judas fully to himself. Within that realization are two outcomes. The first to is to admit the truth and plead for forgiveness. No doubt his co-conspirators will not be pleased, to say the least, and Judas could very well be the one on a cross. The second is to let the hand that has dipped become tainted with blood and go through with the whole thing.
What may have started out as a coin here or there, a couple denarii a week has suddenly escalated into this moment, this weight of all the world compressed into a fateful choice. Sin consumes us little by little until all that is left is a void; James speaks of it this way:
…but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (James 1:14-15 NIV)
As Judas rises to leave, we are told that Satan enters him. He has become the greed that has driven him for so long and now his actions are not his own since he has given them over to another. The betrayer has been set up for his own betrayal.
Stepping back from the ledge
In looking at Judas’ fate, it is probably best to remember that every one of us have a complex of motives. Judas, while he fell prey to his greed and whatever other motives were swirling around, was not sin straight through. That he even showed remorse for his betrayal is proof enough of this. In fact, it is this remorse which leads many to discount the greed scenario altogether. But that is surely too simplistic. Often we knowingly commit sins hoping they give us what we intend from them, only later to realize that they weren’t all they promised. The sadness at the loss and failure is the first step to contrition.
But it cannot be the last step. The little sins that seem so innocuous at the moment can pile up around us until it seems like we are in too deep. On the edge of that precipice we are often left face to face with the nothingness we have become and the glint of light that requires its surrender. I am reminded of Frost from C.S. Leiws’ That Hideous Strength:
Not till then did his controllers allow him to suspect that death itself might not cure the illusion of being a soul—nay, might prove the entry into a world where that illusion raged infinite and unchecked. Escape for the soul, if not for the body, was offered him. He became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed. He half saw: he wholly hated. The torture of the burning was hardly fiercer than his hatred of that. With one supreme effort he flung himself back into his illusion. In that attitude eternity overtook him. (C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength)